Inside Chuck Barris’s Head: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

To view Confessions of a Dangerous Mind click here.

Innovative game show creator Chuck Barris, one of my favorite showbiz figures, died in March of this year. Obituaries rightly acknowledged his influence on reality television. While he created many game shows as head of Chuck Barris Productions, there are three that made pop culture history. The Dating Game (1965-1986), The Newlywed Game (1966-1974) and The Gong Show (1976-1980) shared in common a format designed to exploit the spontaneous and the unpredictable. The shows’ premises—dating, marriage and the desire to be the center of attention—often resulted in responses from contestants that could be embarrassing and downright humiliating.

The enigmatic Barris wrote a controversial and largely untrue autobiography in the early 1980s titled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in which he claimed to have been a spy for the CIA while producing his game shows. The book inspired Charlie Kaufman, Hollywood’s most original screenwriter, to pen a script in the late 1990s, which George Clooney eventually turned into his first film as a director. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) has just become available for streaming on FilmStruck.

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Clooney has directed five feature films, with a sixth in post-production. The drop-dead handsome actor has turned out to be a gifted director, with a nose for good material. Reviews for Confessions were mixed when the film was released, and no reviewer really did it justice. Confessions is unexpectedly complex, a clever interweaving of biography, satire and commentary. And yet that description fails to capture the film’s dark humor, zany premise and pop culture references. I often screen this film in my classes, and it never fails to blow the students’ minds. Confessions is not intended to be an accurate, faithful telling of Barris’s life or even his book; it’s Clooney’s musings on contemporary media by way of Kaufman’s exploration of fiction vs. reality. Still, Clooney believed it to be faithful to the spirit of Barris, remarking in an interview: “Whether it’s true or not, it’s in Chuck’s head.”

The criminally underrated Sam Rockwell stars as Barris. Throughout the film, he walks a fine line between being likable and unlikable, pathetic and funny. The story opens with a few scenes from Barris’s childhood, establishing him as the consummate hustler even as an adolescent. He begins his career in show biz as a page for NBC, then works behind the scenes of American Bandstand (1952-1989). By the early 1960s, he is struggling to develop a game show for television. One evening, he meets a strange man in a bar whose name is Jim Bird. Bird, who is played by Clooney, recruits him as a hitman for the CIA. The sequence showing Barris training as a CIA assassin never fails to make the students laugh out loud. At the end of training, Barris waves good-bye to “Lee” and “Jack,” a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby—a nod to Kennedy conspiracy theorists. The joke hangs in the air for a beat in order for smart viewers to put two and two together.

Chuck’s television career is interwoven with his work for the CIA. It is downright funny when Chuck chaperones his Dating Game couples to cities where he needs to “hit” a target. Given that the time frame is the Cold War, those destinations—like Berlin and Helsinki—are not particularly romantic. The looks on the faces of the girl and her date as they discover they are going to Berlin in the dead of winter is priceless. Eventually, it is clear that the CIA part of Chuck’s life is a defense mechanism for him when his career is in turmoil. Whenever Chuck is suffering from a creative dry spell, Jim Bird shows up. In class, the students like to debate whether Jim Bird is real, or a figment of Barris’s mind. They often speculate that Bird is Chuck’s doppelganger, his dark side who delights in killing the “bad guys.” The word “kill” takes on additional meaning in this film. Chuck uses it to describe a show or a bit that will win over the audiences—this show will “kill,” he tells the network.

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

The bad guys in his day job are stuffy television executives who don’t understand his shows. The bad guys are also media reviewers and culture critics who mercilessly skewer Barris for his programs, especially The Gong Show. In his real life, the relentless criticism aimed at Barris led to self-doubt, self-recrimination and eventually a nervous breakdown. The breakdown is represented in the movie by Chuck’s inability to separate his CIA identity with his showbiz career. Time is fractured and space is distorted as characters and events from his life as an assassin leak into his day job through Chuck’s warped point of view.

Viewers lose their footing, not knowing what is real and what is simply in Barris’s head. And, that is really what the movie is about: Illusion and fiction can actually reveal truth and fact, while facts can be spun into fiction. Using Kaufman’s theory of “fictionalized facts,” the fictions spun by Barris about his life revealed his paranoia, depression and psychic pain. His pain resulted from a botched life of creating schlock; or, as Barris notes in the film, “polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment.”

The fact vs. fiction idea is echoed by the film’s use of documentary-like interviews interwoven into the narrative. Barris’s former associates, including American Bandstand guru Dick Clark and Dating Game host Jim Lange, sincerely remark on his career and speculate on the truth of his hitman claims. The most tragic interview is with Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, a stagehand who danced on The Gong Show between acts. During this interview, the camera zooms back to reveal that both of Gene’s legs have been amputated. A cruel trick of fate for someone whose claim to fame was dancing.

Reality producers and programmers owe much to Barris because his trio of game shows, especially The Gong Show, were experiments in human behavior as related to the media. They proved that human beings would endure any humiliation or insult for the spotlight. Barris may have fretted over his contributions to lowering standards of behavior, but there is a difference between his shows and today’s reality programming. On The Gong Show, Barris and his panel of judges never let contestants forget they were making fools of themselves. They were ruthless in their derision of those who were gonged. If contestants decided to humiliate themselves for fame or money, they knew the price they were paying in self-respect.

Confessions was released just as reality programming was taking off–before it was legitimized by the Television Academy with its own Emmy category. Through Barris, his game shows and his tortured mind, Clooney and Kaufman gave us a needed reminder that reality programming signifies decline. But, I see a difference between Barris and today’s reality moguls. Barris never let his contestants off the hook, while contemporary producers and hosts of reality shows pretend the actions of their participants are perfectly reasonable. They cajole, flatter, entice and seduce participants into displaying their worst behavior or spilling their personal lives to millions of strangers. Was Barris criticizing television and its penchant for exploitation, or was he looking down on his contestants? Either way, his approach seems more transparent, even “honest.”

At the end of the film, the real Barris describes his idea for a new game show. It’s called The Old Game. I won’t spoil the moment by describing his idea, but I doubt if anyone would want to be a contestant. But, then again, I didn’t think anyone would share intimate details of their romantic life on television either. Stay tuned for that new season of The Bachelorette (2003-2017); it starts this month.

Susan Doll

 

 

 

 

4 Responses Inside Chuck Barris’s Head: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Posted By Doug : May 15, 2017 8:15 am

Thank you, Susan-a fine post for a good movie.
Rockwell IS ‘criminally underrated’-I think perhaps because he revels in playing unlikable characters.
Many a ‘star’ will only play the heroes, the Bonds and Batmans, as their ego is linked to the celebrity of being loved.
Rockwell would probably chafe at being typecast as a ‘good guy’, and we, the audience are all the better for it.
As for Barris-a Clown crying evokes two responses: we sympathize with his pain, or we laugh all the harder so as to NOT sympathize and thus be reminded of our own-same could be said for Kaufman.
Years ago a Brit friend lent me the TV show “The Office” before there was an American version-pain and laughter perfectly shaken into a comedy cocktail-I happened to watch the first episode again just last night, as I have my own copy.
Chuck Barris’s first name should have started with an “M”.

Posted By Mike McDonald : May 15, 2017 10:40 am

Great Post! Susan
Thanks for the reminder that Barris never let the contestants or the audience end of thinking what they had did or had seen was admirable…in any way. It was the perfect balm for the pain I suffer trying to avoid the mind numbing programing that one is forced to endure in waiting rooms everywhere today.
Mike

Posted By EricJ : May 15, 2017 1:47 pm

I remember when the movie came out, everyone whispered, “Gosh, do you think might be…telling the truth, and he really was an agent?”
NO!! What do you think?? A celebrity autobiographer isn’t sworn in by court bailiffs when he writes his book, otherwise half of celeb kiss-and-tells wouldn’t be written.

But Barris is a fairly smart cookie (even though he did seem to be wiping his nose a bit onscreen after coming back from breaks on the later Gong Show), and he’s always had a sardonic attitude toward his most famous career identification.
1980′s The Gong Show Movie is now back on disk after almost thirty years of limbo, and rather than the “R-rated highlights” the movie was promoted as in theaters, Barris also wanted the movie to be a Robert Downey Sr. absurdist satire on the cultural phenomenon he’d created, and how a otherwise respectable producer couldn’t escape his new circus.
When Barris wrote Confessions, he obviously wanted to write about more than just how nutty Jaye P. Morgan was on the shooting set.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 15, 2017 3:10 pm

Thanks for the kind words about the post. This is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and I kept tinkering with the post because I feel like I didn’t do it justice.

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